Why Japanese cell phones suck

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Often we post a strange, high-specced foreign device only to lament that it will never be made available in the west. The reason, often assumed to be some hypothetical propensity for Asians to buy 20 cell phones a year and therefore support more competing products, is in truth far more direct: the products stink. Lisa Katayama’s feature on Japan’s fancy handsets explains why: their smart looks conceal severe usability problems and bad user interfaces.

Once you open the clamshell, the interface is a complete mess. While American-made phones are leaning more and more towards simple interfaces and clean design, Japanese gadgets continue to be plagued with feature overload and nightmarish interfaces that are totally impractical.

Katayama goes deep into the odd politics of the Japanese telecoms industry, its disdain for software engineering, and how that leads them to develop and market similarly odd devices. But some things are true the world over: there, as here, the handset manufacturers are virtual slaves of the cellular carrier.

Why Zen Software Design Does Not Come From Japan [Gizmodo]

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17 Responses to Why Japanese cell phones suck

  1. frankiez says:

    “Japanese gadgets continue to be plagued with feature overload and nightmarish interfaces that are totally impractical.”

    Hmm… I hope Lisa has not been infected with “Amercajin living in Japan starting to hate for everything Japanese” virus since if you say that down here mobile phones suck, sorry Lisa, but you are PLAIN WRONG…

    I live between Italy and Tokyo, the two countries with most mobile phones penetration, and I think there is not anything SO wrong in Japanese phones (but of course there are things that could be better).

    If the Japanese Telcos policies are so wrong how they made the internet access trough mobile phones bigger than access from PCs?!
    How the Japanese mobile game market turned into a Industry rivalling the home console market?!
    Why some features of Iphone are years old in the Japanese mobile market?!
    Why Japanese use most the features called “feature overload” created by the bad Japanese Telcos?!

    Now you can make a phone call from the same phone wherever you are in the World but this doesn’t mean that the World must be everywhere the same…

    A quick tip: maybe it could be useful to turn your Japanese Phone in English language mode: after that the interface will be way more clear…

  2. Downpressor says:

    Mostly correct, but note that the word “flash” there doesnt automatically mean “Flash” but probably just shiny animated crap. Also as for NTT being “largely government owned”, more precisely, the Japanese government owns 33.7% of NTT and NTT in turn owns 64% of NTT DoCoMo (the mobile phone carrier wing of NTT). This works out to about 21% government ownership of the dominant (~50% market share) mobile carrier.

    Japanese mobile phones really are a PITA to use. Also since for most young people the phone IS the Internet, the law of unintended consequences results in a generation of “Internet” users who cant type or use a computer worth a darn. Feel free to engage in schadenfreude. I would but I’ve got to deal with office workers who whinge about having to type on a keyboard instead of on a phone…

  3. Nelson.C says:

    User interfaces on mobiles suck pretty generally, whatever the nationality, I’ve found. My old Nokia would dump me back into the text editor showing the message after I’d sent a text instead of back to the home screen, leaving me wondering if I’d actually sent it, while my new Motorola won’t let me type the digit 0 in a text, since that’s also the shift key.

  4. Emily (daturazoku) says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    REALLY? japanese cell phones suck? Well, I’m glad to take my ‘sucky’ Japanese cell phone over anything the US has yet released. The fact that my cell phone has a very good camera, excellent TV, MP3 player and can easily do e-mail at a reasonable price more than makes up for a wonky interface. Which, I would add, is far less wonky than most of the American cell phones I’ve endured.

    And one should NEVER, NEVER EVER EVER compare real Japanese phones to prepaid models. Prepaid models are the cheap-o bottom of the line, sold cheap and not expected to garner a lot of repeat revenue from the company that releases them. Her sixteen step process to get to missed calls surprises me though because even on my ancient Vodafone toy-phone like prepaid there was still a button directly on the phone to catch missed calls and this is a fairly standard thing for Japanese phones.

    Yes, definitely, MARKETWIDE, in every country there is a long grudged need for cell phone software to be better standardized. Lisa’s article is poorly written and misunderstands just how good we have it in Japan. Give me a market where any cell phone I buy has outstanding features and graphics over a market where only one or two smart phones have it together and the rest suffer 10 years behind anyday.

  5. johninsapporo says:

    I can’t speak for ALL Japanese cell phones, but the Softbank phone I have certainly sucks. The two AU phones before that were marginally worse. The only one that was any good was the SONY I had at first., It was great. Really simple – just a phone with a very handy rapid dialer thumbwheel and NO COLOR! So it easily went a week between charges. And NO OTHER APPLICATIONS, no MP3, no camera, no nothing. It was just a phone. Very simple, very fast and very easy to operate.

    How I miss it!

    John Davis

  6. thedeath says:

    i have no problem with the japanese cell-phone’s navigation. it got its own good and bad.

    but i do have a lot of problem with the way the Japanese telecoms industry doing it business.
    the cell phone service here is a real suck and pain in the a-s-s.

    1.99% of the over price cell phone are un-lockable! never talk about using that phone oversea. you will have to ask them to unlock your phone, and hope that they will do it!

    2.try to get more than 1 phone using with one number(sim), and try more than 1 number using with one phone. in any country you can simply switch the sim, switch the phones.
    here? …… try it if you thing you can!

    3.if you do a short visit and you want prepaid sim card, it is a big big problem!
    -it will take you almost an hour to do the application form.
    -they will convince you to by monthly service
    -sometime they let you use your already have oversea 3G phone, at the same store in some occasion you will have to buy the japanese over price prepaid phone. i had this issue with softbank before!
    -you might end up ask them >why not just give me the damn prepaid’s sim, so i can leave!?

  7. thedeath says:

    i have no problem with the japanese cell-phone’s navigation. it got its own good and bad.

    but i do have a lot of problem with the way the Japanese telecoms industry doing it business.
    the cell phone service here is a real suck and pain in the a-s-s.

    1.99% of the over price cell phone are un-lockable! never talk about using that phone oversea. you will have to ask them to unlock your phone, and hope that they will do it!

    2.try to get more than 1 phone using with one number(sim), and try more than 1 number using with one phone. in any country you can simply switch the sim, switch the phones.
    here? …… try it if you thing you can!

    3.if you do a short visit and you want prepaid sim card, it is a big big problem!
    -it will take you almost an hour to do the application form.
    -they will convince you to by monthly service
    -sometime they let you use your already have oversea 3G phone, at the same store in some occasion you will have to buy the japanese over price prepaid phone. i had this issue with softbank before!
    -you might end up ask them >why not just give me the damn prepaid’s sim, so i can leave!?

  8. thedeath says:

    4.internet service also over prince, and don’t let them know you connect the phone internet with your computer!

    5.try to apply for any phone service here, and see how long it will take you to do!
    then compare it to how short you can get a phone application done back home.
    you will see how slow the japanese system are!

    in conclusion,
    why i do i want to pay upto 5-600$ for a plastic locked phone (even cheap pre-paid today can easily cause you 400$)
    which my nokia is only 300$ and it can do everything the jphone can do as a phone, and i can use it back in my country when i back there.

    who want to watch tv in that tinny screen by the way!

  9. damageman says:

    Yeah I think that Lisa hits some great points and I think the point she really needed to make is that Japanese cell phones are very expensive due to the feature bloat. I wish they had a better array of phones to choose from that ran from a basic phone up to a decked out top of the line Ninja like phone. Now you can pick from a grandma phone with two buttons(one for home, one for the police) OR a top of the line phone with a TV, MP3, and all the other bells.

    However for doing Japanese emails, web surfing, payments, train passes and such the Japanese phone is totally awesome. Typing in English sucks, using the phone in English sucks, the next phone I buy will not need to have the bilingual feature the translations are bad and if you are studying Japanese you should read Japanese.

    That said all the phone companies here are FUCKING evil! Just the worst! If you go to any place in akiba it is easy to see that all the carriers are engaging in price fixing and collusion! Not that everything and anything is not overpriced here. How can stuff from China be cheaper in Nebraska then in Japan?????? It doesn’t make sense!

  10. blipmusic says:

    I think it’s not “foreigners in Japan starting to hate all things Japanese” but rather some of the commenters above being too much into things Japanese. When complaining about criticism not being objective it’d do you good to use some of that objectivity as well…

    Take a step back, please. Look at the direction and evolution of commercially available GUI:s in the western mobilephone market and compare those to the ones in Japanese mobiles. They’re practically the same as the ones 5-10 years ago with a bit of animation and new theming here and there. Sorry but GUI:s are a pet-peeve of mine and sadly Japanese phones do not cut it and seem to still use “hardware-flashy” and mostly ignoring how the hardware functions connects to the software functions and in turn how the software connects to the user.

    Sure, depending on brand there might be a couple of difference (fex all the NEC sets I’ve used were painfully slow affairs when it came to interface compared to my western Sony-Ericsson set but that has perhaps (read: hopefully) changed. The Japanese sets seems to be choking on their hardware functionality since the software hasn’t caught up. That, and that the west has pretty much caught up. Can’t speak for America but here in Europe there’s alot to choose from nowadays.

    A big difference with the Japanese mobile market is that since the customers are willing to pay more/month there are a lot of available *services*. Europeasn weren’t willing to pay the kind of monthly costs you see in Japan until recently. When you have such a large and mostly uniform consumer base, things like Suica and the likes is a no-brainer. Looking at Europe/USA etc consumer groups seems to be more divided in a lot of ways. Since that’s the case, tech-standards for cash-card phones etc isn’t as easily to realize as in Japan (small area inhabitating *lots* of people).

    One exception when it comes to UI/GUI:s is actually Ricoh with their GR-D/GX*00 line of compact “high-end” digital cameras who have managed to make a DSLR-like experience when it comes to handling.

    And I totally agree with John Davis above when it comes to adding features. Nowadays features are there for to make the PR-reps happy.

    Yes, UI/GUI is a pet-peeve of mine. It’s 2008 and the bottle neck *still* is the plethora of really crappy interfaces bolted on as an afterthought on our expensive and very capable tools/toys/what-have-you.

  11. Anonymous says:

    What a stupid article…

    My 6 year old model still is current and better than most cell phones in Canada/USA, including “smart-phones”.

    “Push email” that made blackberry famous and rich is a matter of fact in Japan. Email on a cell phone in Japan is REAL TIME, and has been since at least the year 2000. It is still a great effort to get push email to work on many cell phones here.

    Oh, and check this out, 4 years ago Toshiba came out with the worlds first DIGITAL TV cell phone. And analog TV cell phones have been around longer.

    Before posting C*R*A*P, do some research.

    D.

  12. frankiez says:

    Ciao Downpressor!

    genki?

    “That has more to do with NTT/Government desire to prevent the Internet from coming into Japan as long as possible than any positive qualities of the Net on phones.”

    You mean that 100 megabit connections at 35$ monthly are not a good way to promote fixed Internet connections?

    Anyway have a great 1st november Halloween party night in Tokyo!

    @ blipmusic:
    “I think it’s not “foreigners in Japan starting to hate all things Japanese” but rather some of the commenters above being too much into things Japanese. When complaining about criticism not being objective it’d do you good to use some of that objectivity as well…”

    There are many things I don’t like in Japan but ketai are not in the list (but maybe it’s beacuse I come from Europe and in USA you got better mobile phones)…

  13. Jarvik7 says:

    I think part of the problems that foreigners complain about with Japanese cellphones simply comes down to the models they buy. If they don’t know Japanese, they’ll go for the international model phones, which are always the worst ones available (and usually a few years old too). My 3 year old 1yen (1yr contract) phone easily has a better interface than any cell I’ve used in the US or Canada, and more features too.

    As for price fixing, that’s ridiculous. You can actually bargain at many of the larger electronics chains that sell phones. My phone was supposed to be 7000yen /w contract but I talked them down to 1yen. Besides, how can you compare the prices to Nebraska when none of the models are even sold there?

  14. Daemon says:

    I’m an english tutor, and a university student – most of Japanese students and immigrants I’ve known thought north american cell phones sucked overall.

  15. Downpressor says:

    @#12 Frankiez

    I personally love my FTTH, but as far as I can tell, I’ve got the only one in my entire neighborhood. Since the fibre runs on the telephone or power poles, I can check pretty easily. Maybe its not an accurate method or good supportive evidence, but even you know that home computer ownership is pretty low. Anyway, what I was talking about re: NTT is history, not present day.

  16. Anonymous says:

    The situation is far from black and white though. Last year I picked up a W51S from Au KDDI for Â¥1 with 2 year contract. Sure, the interface to use any advanced functionality is an absolute train wreck with no thought to how it fits together overall, and some (ha! many) of the features are poorly thought out or halfway implemented. That being said the basic features are just as usable and accessible as a basic phone in the US, and even if you don’t use 90% of the advanced functionality it still feels like the technology is 3 years ahead of phones in the US. In the summer of 2007 my “free” phone came with: 3G data and Opera mini, AGPS with mapping and picture geotagging, a decent 2MP camera and software to read QR codes (2D barcodes), and a bundled copy of Picsel File Viewer. All of those features actually work and I find them useful on a regular basis. On the other hand the music player is basically useless to me, since it requires audio to be transcoded into some Sony proprietary format.

    Another interesting thing that’s not mentioned in the article is the effect carrier dictated features have on the phone lineup. Instead of trying to upsell you from a basic phone to a high-end phone the strategy seems to be more tuned to just making sure that you come back and buy *something new* as often as possible. To that end they’ll release a whole new lineup of phones every 6 months or so, and those phones will have some common “theme.” In summer 2008 the theme seemed to be “waterproof / water resistant.” When I bought my phone, AGPS had just been added to the whole Au lineup. This way customers can choose their phone based on style and fashion, knowing that (for better or worse) one phone is basically functionally equivalent to the others

  17. Downpressor says:

    Actually its refreshing to see an article anywhere in the BB pantheon thats not slavishly salavering on the so called wonders of all things Japanese.

    FWIW, I’m rather happy with my Wilcom WX321J phone but thats because I only use it to talk. The Softbank handset I have for work is a confusing horror with one of those “flip and rotate” clamshell designs thats supposed to be cool but ends up requiring two hands to open correctly to answer/make a call.

    @#2 FRANKIEZ

    If the Japanese Telcos policies are so wrong how they made the internet access trough mobile phones bigger than access from PCs?!

    That has more to do with NTT/Government desire to prevent the Internet from coming into Japan as long as possible than any positive qualities of the Net on phones. Its the usual fear of the Black Ships and “not invented here” that the powers that be exhibit here every time something from the West comes along. They do their best to delay it until local companies can come up with something “suitable” for the Japanese market.

    Maybe you were or werent here before DSL/FTTH became common, but back when Net access meant an analog modem, accessing the Net meant paying by the minute for your call, or signing up for NTT’s “telehodai” plan and waiting till after 11PM to get online. “High speed” meant ISDN with a heft basic fee. NTT resisted any change to infrastructure past the turn of the century as far as allowing DSL. FTTH was first popularized in Tokyo by the electric company since they had “last mile” access through the power poles. That and the fact that computer literacy or ownership have generally been much lower here than other countries relevant to this topic all helped contribute to the growth of the Net on a 2″ screen. Reference Murai Jun, Tokyo Metalic, Global Online, TWICS, Joi Ito’s term with PSI, etc.

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